Terracotta bell-krater (mixing bowl) attributed to Python; Late Classical (ca 360–350 BCE) Greek, South Italian, Paestan; terracotta; red-figure, diameter 14 1/2 in (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Terracotta bell-krater (mixing bowl) attributed to Python; Late Classical (ca 360–350 BCE) Greek, South Italian, Paestan; terracotta; red-figure, diameter 14 1/2 in (image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Almost three years after being alerted that a piece of antiquity looted by tomb raiders in Italy in the 1970s was in its collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has turned it over to local authorities. The piece, a 2,300-year-old vase attributed to the Greek artist Python, was finally surrendered to the Manhattan district attorney’s office last week, after investigators issued a warrant (published by the New York Times) to the Met on July 24 after examining photographs and other evidence sent to them by Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and lecturer with the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, who has been researching looted artifacts for several years.

The vase, which was displayed for more than two decades in the Greco-Roman galleries of the museum, is a vividly painted bell krater depicting Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and creative ecstasy, riding in a cart pulled by a satyr. No surprise given that decorative scheme that it is said to have been used for mixing water and wine. How it ended up in the district attorney’s office is a story of persistent research, conscientious pursuit of the truth, and careful record-keeping by criminals.

The case really began in 2014, when Tsirogiannis tracked down the Python vase by consulting the records of a convicted antiquities trafficker, Giacomo Medici. Tsirogiannis published his suspicions that the vase may have been looted in the Journal of Art Crime in 2014 and, according to the Times, sent his evidence to the Met then as well. Tsirogiannis told the Times that he never heard back from the museum and, because no action appeared to have been taken, last spring he sent his evidence to a Manhattan prosecutor, Matthew Bogdanos, who specializes in art crime. Tsirogiannis had gathered copies of Polaroid photos shot between 1972 and 1995, reportedly seized from Medici’s storehouses in 1995, which showed the Python vase encrusted with dirt. He compared that image with an image of a similar item in a 1989 Sotheby’s sales catalogue, and those two to an image the Met had posted online, finding all three to be identical. The investigator was aided by Medici being such a careful record keeper.

Medici, a 79-year-old Italian art dealer, was arrested in 1997 and convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities. Two years before his arrest, the police had raided his Geneva storerooms, where they found 3,800 antiquities and thousands of related documents. The authorities also discovered close to 4,000 photos of items that Medici had trafficked. After his arrest, the photo archives became a tool for identifying as looted many objects in museums and galleries around the world. Despite this evidence, Medici has denied having any connection with the Python vase.

Hyperallergic reached out to Kenneth Weine, the Met’s chief communications officer, to ask why the return of the vase took so long. Weine replied with the following statement:

The Museum has worked diligently to ensure a just resolution of this matter. Upon the publication in 2014 of an image of the piece, the Museum began reaching out to the Italian Ministry of Culture — which is in keeping with prior agreements we have with the Italian government. When the Manhattan DA contacted The Met in recent months, we immediately took the piece off display, and last week delivered it to the prosecutor’s office. The Museum is always committed to working with government partners to resolve an issue regarding an item in our collection.

The implication seems to be that the Italian Ministry of Culture was quite nonchalant about pursuing the return of this piece of patrimony, which the Met acquired for $90,000 at a Sotheby’s sale in 1989, according to the Times. What is clear is that concerned researchers and archaeologists will sometimes have to take it upon themselves to make sure that illicit objects are returned to their rightful owners.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...